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A Little Off the Mark

Phelps' quest to at least equal Spitz's record of seven gold medals ends when he finishes third in 200 freestyle. Thorpe wins.

August 17, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — If it wasn't one giant eclipsing him, it was another. If it wasn't the shadow of Mark Spitz looming, it was the huge wave action of Ian Thorpe threatening to take him under.

Boxed in by the past and the present, Michael Phelps had no place to hide.

So he wound up on the third-place step of the medals podium Monday night at the Olympics, despite having swum a time that would have won gold four years ago in Sydney.

And now, Phelps won't have to hear the name Mark Spitz for, oh, at least 10 minutes. The loss to Thorpe in the 200-meter freestyle officially ended Phelps' chase to match Spitz and his record seven gold medals at one Olympics.

"I tried to do something he did," said Phelps, who so far has one gold and two bronzes. "I tried to match that, but I didn't. I guess you could say the pressure is off."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic swimming medals -- A Sports section graphic Tuesday about the most medals won in a single Olympic Games, showed that U.S. swimmer Matt Biondi won a silver medal in the 200 breaststroke in 1988; he won a silver in the 100 butterfly. The graphic also showed that Mark Spitz won one of his 1972 gold medals in the 200 breaststroke; rather, he won a gold in the 200 butterfly.

The viability of that quest had been downgraded a huge notch, dropping to nearly impossible after Phelps and his teammates finished third Sunday in the 400 freestyle relay. Phelps would have had to win his remaining six events, including two relays, a truly Herculean task. As it is, he still could win eight medals. They just won't all be gold.

The highly hyped race unfolded on an electric night here. On the deck were the world-record holder, Thorpe, of Australia; defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, Grant Hackett of Australia and American Klete Keller.

"It was a final that excited a lot of people," Thorpe said. "This has been played out on three continents in the lead-up to the Olympics. It was quite a big deal."

The Dutch swimmer moved out in determined fashion and was second, under world-record pace, at 100 meters. He led at 150, then was overtaken by Thorpe's furious finish.

Thorpe won in 1 minute 44.71 seconds, an Olympic record, then let loose an emphatic roar and thrust his arm in the air. Van den Hoogenband was second in 1:45.23, and Phelps third in 1:45.32, breaking his American record from the trials. Keller finished fourth in 1:46.13.

Thorpe, who was upset by the Dutchman in this event four years ago at the Sydney Olympics, was already looking ahead to 2008 when he exchanged congratulations with Van den Hoogenband.

Thorpe said he told him, " 'I guess that makes it 1-1 and I'd like to see you in Beijing.' "

Phelps won't be going away, either. He ventured into Thorpe's house, so to speak, and acquitted himself nicely, certainly not looking out of place in the stellar field.

"How can I be disappointed?" Phelps said. "I swam in a field with the two fastest 200 freestylers of all time and I was right there with them. I'm extremely happy with that. It's a best time, a new American record.

"That's the first time I've been able to race those guys in that event and it's fun. I had fun doing it."

Phelps' personal coach, Bob Bowman, had given him the option of dropping the 200 freestyle after the trials, but it was never an option for the 19-year-old from Baltimore.

He wanted to test himself the same way Thorpe had last summer at the world championships. There, in Barcelona, swimming his specialty, Phelps crushed Thorpe in the 200 individual medley.

Thorpe objected to the imagery, though, when asked about the rivalry.

"I don't see us as being animals and marking our territory, not yet," he said, smiling.

This, though, was the missing entry on Thorpe's long, distinguished resume. Though the 21-year-old has the top five performances in the 200 -- Monday's time tied for third -- an Olympic victory in the event had been absent. Observed Bowman: "He's come through the last four years. He's had some extremely high periods, a couple of rocky periods. He's now come out of it and he's on top of the world again. I think it makes him the best middle-distance swimmer in history."

Since Phelps was 13, Bowman has had him watching a video of Thorpe in action. Phelps said he had viewed it probably 100 times.

Live action was even more impressive.

"In my opinion, he has a perfect stroke," Phelps said. "His stroke is unbelievable. How it moves through the water. I was swimming next to him last night [in the semifinals] and the first thing I said to Bob was, 'Wow, he makes a big wave.' I was coming off the wall right next to him and still getting hammered by the waves."

Hammered by the waves. Hammered by the expectations. It turned out to be a one-two punch that even the very wide shoulders of the 6-foot-4 Phelps couldn't quite handle this time.

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